Chapter 3 of Eva’s Secret
3. Under the Table
10-year-old Eva, Granada’s Silk Market, 1506
Eva was not exactly forbidden to be there. But she and Blanca were definitely not supposed to be out alone and unaccompanied by doña Teresa Pacheco, the poor but genteel relation who served as Blanca’s duenna.
“Are you sure that doña Teresa will be gone for another hour?” Eva whispered as they hid behind the wall that surrounded the flat roof of her father’s warehouse in the old Silk Market.
“Don’t be so worried, you silly goose!” Blanca giggled. Their duenna thought they were waiting for her in the Cathedral nearby, saying prayers for the souls of Blanca’s dead brothers and sisters. “Even if she’s not, she won’t say anything. She’d be the one in trouble, leaving us like that.”
Blanca would not get in trouble, but Eva surely would, if her father found out. Still, he would not restrict Eva’s visits with her friend; Iago de Pazia was flattered that the daughter of a Count should be willing to spend time with a merchant’s daughter, even a very rich one.
“I must have been wrong about the day. Blanca, let’s go back.” Eva was hot. Her dark blue velvet was smothering, its rigid bodice pinched, and the stiff leather of her best shoes pressed on her extra toe.
“No, look! Here he comes!” The clop of hooves in the street below announced Elias, riding Fez, the new Arabian stallion that was part of the latest de Pazia shipment. The horse was groomed until his red-bay coat shone. He held his black tail high and arched his neck, tossing his head against the bit. Elias appeared to sit him with perfect ease.
“Oh, Eva, your brother is sooo handsome,” Blanca sighed. “Look, your father and his customer haven’t come out yet, couldn’t you just wave at him so he would look up at us?”
Eva knew the intent expression of concentration on Elias’ face meant Fez was barely under control. “No, it’s risky. There are too many eyes in the silk market today and we don’t want to attract attention.”
“Maybe I could talk my father into buying me a new palfrey. Then Elias could come and show me all your father’s stock, one at a time!”
“Oh, no,” Eva said quickly. “Father would never sell the Governor any of the horses Elias shows.”
“Those are the ones that are too high-spirited. It’s just when my brother rides them, he makes them behave. But they’re dangerous.”
This information only served to increase Blanca’s admiration. “He’s as brave as El Cid!”
“Shh! There’s my father and the man who wants to see the horse.” The two girls ducked down below the parapet, listening to the bargaining below. The dickering went on and on, while Elias trotted the sale animal in a tight circle. Eva could see its eye showing white, and a scrim of sweat-foam starting along the lines of its elaborate chest-band.
The deal finished at last, but still they stood out in the street. Now the discussion was over delivery of the goods. The buyer purposed to take the horse at once, while Iago de Pazia argued that Elias should ride it to the purchaser’s estate later in the day.
“We need to get back,” Blanca whispered. “If we sneak down the stairs while they are still haggling, maybe we can make it to the Cathedral before doña Teresa returns.” The tall door of the Royal Chapel was visible just over the colorful awnings that hung in front of the shops and market stalls that ringed the square.
Their skirts bunched to keep from brushing the whitewashed wall, both girls tiptoed down the stairs to the alley. Turning away from the loud business transaction, Eva and Blanca slipped unnoticed around the corner of the building. The narrow alley behind the shop opened onto the cathedral square.
“Come on!” Blanca broke into a run. She burst out of the alley almost on top of an elegantly-dressed nobleman. Unable to stop in time, Eva crashed into Blanca, knocking her into the man’s arms.
“Maria Blanca Mendoza y Pacheco!” Eva recognized the stern voice: don Luis Mendoza, Blanca’s oldest brother! “I have been looking for you! Your duenna said you had left her in the Chapel.”
“Luis!” Blanca was dismayed at finding herself in the grasp of her least-favored brother. She took a moment to settle her skirts—and, Eva knew, to invent a plausible excuse. “We went to see the beautiful things Eva’s father just got in from Constantinople. The de Pazia shop is right across the square from the Cathedral, so—”
“No matter how close it is, you should have waited for doña Teresa.” Luis took her arm firmly. “You are coming home with me.”
“—can go home with her father,” Luis finished. “I will escort your young friend back to her family business. An early end to your visit is a small enough punishment for this prank. I can’t imagine what señor de Pazia will think of us, letting his daughter go about unchaperoned.”
Eva cast a despairing look at Blanca. Her father would be furious that she had done anything to displease the powerful Mendozas.
At that moment Elias came around the front of the building. “Oh, here is my brother! You don’t need to bother, don Luis, Elias can take me back to the shop, it’s only one door down, you won’t have to trouble yourself,” she babbled.
Elias took in the situation and, quick as ever, he bowed. “Don Luis! I just stepped away from the girls for a moment. Please forgive that I let your little sister out of my sight. It was entirely my fault.”
Luis was taken aback; twelve-year-old Elias was not really mature enough to pass as any kind of guardian. Before don Luis could respond, Elias gave a courtier’s bow, taking Blanca’s hand and kissing it like a hidalgo grandee. “Farewell, señorita Mendoza. As your brother is no doubt in a hurry, we will send your purchase to the Alhambra tomorrow.”
Eva watched in admiration as Elias handled the encounter like another grown-up, making knowledgeable compliments on don Luis’ mount as he lifted Blanca onto the saddle in front of her brother. By the time don Luis rode off, he was mollified.
As soon as the Mendoza siblings were out of earshot, Elias addressed her in an angry whisper. “Eva, what are you doing here?”
“We were on the roof. Blanca wanted to watch the horse sale.” Eva hung her head.
“We’d better not let Father find out about this.” Elias considered her velvet dress and inadequate shoes. “You can’t walk far in that. I’ll run home and get another horse, and you can ride pillion. You’ll have to hide in Father’s shop.”
They had reached the front of the shop next to their father’s and her brother pretended to be interested in one of the lengths of cloth hung out for sale. Eva needed no warning to keep the billowing layers of yardage between herself and their father, now finishing the paperwork of the horse’s pedigree. Fez was attracting all the attention in the market square, prancing and pawing in circles while the buyer’s servant held his reins.
Elias pointed to a covered table deep inside the open front of the de Pazia shop. “Hide under there, and make sure to arrange the tablecloth after you,” he whispered. “When I come back, I’ll give our whistle. After you hear it, wait until everybody is distracted, then unbar the back door and slip out as quietly as you can.”
The horse reared up and flailed with his forefeet. Eva took advantage of the distraction and quickly moved from behind the neighbor’s display of fabrics into the open front of her father’s shop. She dived under the richly covered table while everyone was busy with the stallion. One of the items displayed on the top fell off. There was a small divide between the two embroidered cloths that covered the table, and Eva reached a hand through it to pick up the expensive jeweled vase, carefully replacing it on the surface over her head.
There was a crash in the square. Eva put her eye to the crack between the table-covering and saw her father run outside. Stacks of merchandise partially blocked her view, but between the bales and displays she could see the street. Fez’ shrill whinny was followed by a ring of horseshoes on cobbles, the thud of hooves striking baled cloth, the splintering of wooden awning-poles. A flash of polished red-bay hide shot past Eva’s restricted view, soon blocked by frantic figures of shopkeepers and assistants trying to divert the frightened stallion.
Father was shouting for Elias. She had gotten him in trouble again: her brother was off getting a horse to take her home while the sale animal trampled the silk market. Iago would be furious.
The hue and cry moved further down the square and Eva, who had lifted the cloth to see better, quickly dropped it as her father and two of his shopkeepers returned. The fabric hung a little crookedly so that a narrow v-shaped opening gave a view into her hiding place beneath the table. Eva did not dare adjust it with her father looking into the shop, no doubt checking the contents to be sure nothing of value had been snatched during the brief time his attention was outside. Eva quaked when he came to the table and rearranged the vase, but although he looked straight at her he did not seem to see her. She thanked Saint Basil that the underside of the table was in shadow and she had worn the dark blue dress and mantilla instead of the cream-colored lace.
“The fool! I told him not to take the horse today, but he insisted. On his head be it!” Iago sat down at his elaborate desk in the rear of the shop. Eva heard his quill scraping on the accounting sheets he kept so carefully. “Where is that useless son of mine? Get back to work.”
The shop-boy returned to polishing the expensive merchandise, while the guard lounged outside. It was so quiet in the shop, any movement would be heard. Elias’ whistle would attract her father’s attention at once. If only a customer would come!
Cross-legged was not the proper posture for prayer, but Eva did not dare shift into a kneeling position. She folded her hands and prayed earnestly to Saint Basil to send a distraction, help her escape notice, help Elias hurry back, and get her out the back door without Iago de Pazia ever being the wiser.
Saint Basil answered: Eva heard the guard greet a customer at the shop entrance. From the respectful note in his voice, it was someone of consequence. Her father rose and exchanged courtesies with the newcomer, addressing him as Baltasar Cerra.
The man replied fulsomely, his accent identifying him as Moorish. Another man—or, judging from the timbre of his voice, a youth—seconded the greeting, his tone deferential. No doubt a servant of some kind.
Eva begged Saint Basil to let them stay and keep her father occupied until she made good her escape.
They accepted the offer of tea! Paco the shop boy hurried to the back to boil water. The guard spread a silk carpet on the tiled floor, and Eva discovered to her alarm that the area selected for her father’s hospitality was directly in front of her hiding place. Iago waved his guests onto the rug while the seats were brought.
The two newcomers paused a few feet from her table. Eva got a good view of the bottom of Cerra’s robe, a typical Granadan burnoose, while the younger voice’s bare legs confirmed her guess of his servile status. The lace pattern of her mantilla played tricks on her eyes, distorting the skin on the man’s muscled calves. Eva tipped her head just enough to see his feet below the edge of her veil and discovered that the dappled effect was not the fault of her mantilla. Rather, every exposed inch was pitted with indentations, each pit stark white against deep brown skin. It was the worst case of smallpox scarring she had ever seen, worse even than old Blas, their gardener.
The guard rolled a gilded leather ottoman onto the carpet, and the bare legs stepped out of the way, closer to Eva’s table and just inches from her nose. Eva hardly dared to breathe as she stared at his scars. The only place that was free from the white pits was a band of callus that ringed the leg nearest her. The cause of it rested loosely against the ankle: an iron slave-cuff which showed the weld-marks of many enlargements. Eva realized that the enlargements, together with the callusing, meant that the wearer had borne it since childhood.
So the man was a slave. Eva was fascinated. She herself did not know anybody who was a slave, although the institution was common enough in Granada. Her father held that slaves were lazy workers and untrustworthy, while Blanca’s father had freed all the slaves that came with the Alhambra. The only thing Eva knew about slaves was hearsay and stories.
One of her favorite stories about Saint Basil involved a slave who was trapped by the devil. Eva wondered if her patron saint had sent this slave, whose status was made so obvious by his ankle. Half-ashamed of her presumption in asking for so much, she silently prayed for a sign.
No sooner had she finished than the slave shifted his feet so that the inside of his opposing leg was visible. To her astonishment, several scars on the slave’s ankle ran together to form a familiar shape—the backwards ‘E’ which was once her childish signature!
Her little gasp was covered by the thump of a second ottoman dropping onto the carpet. Her father waved an ink-stained hand. “Please, be seated.”
To Eva’s intense relief, Iago de Pazia took the closest ottoman, facing away from her hiding place. Cerra, a short, fat Moor, settled onto the ottoman opposite, where he was mostly blocked by her father’s back. In the middle of the carpet, Paco unfolded a wooden tray-stand. As he moved out of the way, Eva saw that the slave had seated himself cross-legged on the carpet next to his master–and eye-level to her where she sat under the table. Fortunately, his attention was directed to the conversation between her father and Baltasar Cerra, who were engaged in the boring banalities that always preceded a discussion of business in Granada.
Eva was surprised at how much older the slave looked than his voice sounded. Was it those lines that scored the high forehead? But they were a trick of the scar-pattern, not wrinkles. Although there was nothing youthful about the strong furrows that bracketed his long, prominent nose. They disappeared into sparse facial hair, framing full lips, stippled by yet more scars. That mouth was the one feature that seemed young—young and somehow vulnerable. It was a face made prematurely old by suffering, Eva decided.
Paco reappeared with the round brass tea-tray laden with the silver tea-service. He settled the huge tray onto its wooden stand with hardly a rattle of the objects thereon. From a paper cone he sifted freshly chopped mint leaves into the high-domed Moroccan pot, and the air filled with astringent steam.
The slave’s image wavered in the steam. Eva had a moment of unexplained recognition—he was familiar, and yet strange—like the time that she had not quite recognized Ramon, the head groom, because he had cut off his long beard.
That was it—the beard was too short! Beneath the disfiguring marks, the slave’s elongated features bore a striking resemblance to the painting of Saint Basil in her book of hours.
Paco reappeared with an ewer of water, a linen towel and the brass basin. Cerra and Father held their hands out while rose-scented water was poured over them.
Her father dried his hands. “And now, what is the business you wished to see me about?”
“A matter of three French horses—destrier material.” Cerra finished with the towel and draped it over Paco’s arm. “They were offered to me in a group purchase with some new pack-mules I acquired for my caravans, but as you know, I do not sell livestock.”
Paco took the used towel and basin away, but as he turned, Eva saw him covertly make the sign against the evil eye in the pockmarked slave’s direction. He saw it and his lips twisted in a small wry moue. Eva’s ready sympathy was aroused, and she was indignant at Paco’s rudeness. She wondered how long the slave had borne the scars, and how often, in those years, he had endured stares, ridicule or avoidance just because of something he could not help.
“Casa de Pazia does not handle livestock, either,” Iago was saying. “We only broker horses if they are the finest examples of equine breeding. And just because these animals are French does not make them destrier material. Have you seen them yourself?”
“No. I act on the word of my man, here.” Cerra turned to the pockmarked slave. “I have brought him so that you may question him personally as regards the quality of the horses.”
“I thank you for the offer, but I cannot make a business decision on nothing but the word of a Saracen slave.” Though she could only see the back of his neck, Eva could well imagine the disapproval on Iago de Pazia’s face, because that look was so often directed at herself.
Eva saw the slave’s features go still at her father’s blunt words, in the same way Elias did when he did not want others to see that something had stung.
“As to the first, he is no more a Saracen than you are a Jew.” Cerra’s tone was one grown-ups used when they did not quite mean what they said. “We are all baptized Catholics now. And as to the second, I can assure you that I do not keep fools by me. Baseel is one of my protégés.”
His name was Basil! Eva’s hands flew to her mouth in surprise, attracting the slave’s attention. He looked straight at her where she sat in the shadows. Her heart almost stopped. Would he give her away?
”Well, at least he had the wit to choose a different baptismal name,” Iago was saying. “Half the native population of Granada is now named either Maria or Jose. Without regard for gender.”
Eva moved her hands down and clasped them together, a silent plea not to be revealed. Cerra laughed. “Yes, my stable-manager’s Christian name is Maria. Although we call him Maria-Hussein to differentiate him from Maria-Omar, who leads one of my mule caravans. But that is the fault of the priest who baptized them, for these older Moriscos speak only Arabic, and accepted whatever name the priest suggested. But Baseel is of a different cut.”
The slave gave a little smile—Eva could not be sure if it was for her, or for her father, whom he addressed. “My master gives me too much credit. I am merely fortunate that the Berber name bestowed on me at birth happens to sound the same as a Christian one. Though I believe that the Saint of that name is more popular in the Greek church.”
“There, you see?” Cerra said. “I judge people, like you judge horses. Baseel came with an estate in the Alpujarra mountains, a part of the grant the Catholic Kings gave Boabdil when he surrendered Granada.” Cerra sipped his tea. “I overheard someone speaking court Persian, and on coming very quietly to investigate, found Baseel here quoting Rumi to his goats.”
“People did not find the sight of me welcome.” Eva felt relief wash over her. The slave was on her side. “And in any case, goats appreciate poetry more.”
“How does a goat-boy come to read Persian?” Her father’s question showed that he was intrigued.
“Ah, there is where my investigation paid off.” Cerra became visible as her father poured himself more tea. “It seems that Baseel was born in the Alhambra, in the service of Muley Hassan, the old sultan. But that is something I have never asked. Baseel, how did you learn court Persian?”
“Until I grew too old for such company, I was a kind of mascot to the sultan’s harem,” Baseel replied. “One of the women was from Baghdad. She taught me just so that she could speak to someone in her own language. Or so she said.”
“Many a street beggar has picked up a polyglot of tongues.” Iago shrugged. “To be useful to business, a man must not merely speak a language, but read bills of lading and write orders for merchandise.”
“Indeed, that was what made me realize that I had here a lad of rare initiative. For he was reading Rumi from a book made of re-used scrap paper, copied by himself. Baseel, tell señor de Pazia of your languages.”
“I am fluent in Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, and Persian. Also, I speak a dialect of Berber, although there is no written form; and I can read and write Latin, but I do not speak it.”
“Hmmph.” Eva could tell that, despite her father’s dismissive noise, he was impressed. “But you are unwise to put so much trust in a slave, whatever his learning. A free man works well because it is in his own interest to do so, but a slave’s efforts are forced. Whatever he can get away with, a slave will do, and one with initiative is the more dangerous for that. Given the chance to gain his freedom, he will desert you.”
“An interesting theory. Let us test it.” Cerra turned to the his slave. “Baseel, if you wish to leave my service, I will write you a certificate of manumission here and now.”
Baseel thought a few seconds before he answered. “No matter how free a man may be, he is still a slave to his belly. If you had not given me this chance to use my talents, a face such as mine would have little prospect of employment.”
“There, you see?” The merchant’s voice had the quality of one who was smiling. “But I will give him his freedom anyway, in due time. Baseel is a hawk, to be trained to the lure, and when their feathers are fully fledged, the hunter unleashes them on the chosen prey with confidence that they will return to the glove.”
At that moment, Eva heard Elias whistle in the alley behind the shop. He must have ridden hard to have returned so quickly!
Eva re-positioned herself onto her hands and knees. She started to back out, but her foot bumped a rear table leg. The objects overhead jiggled. Eva froze, waiting for her father to whirl around. But at that moment, Basil made to rise, and his knee bumped the edge of the tea-tray. It went over with a clash of silver pot, cups, and sugar-coffer.
He jumped up. “My apologies, señor! Forgive my clumsiness!”
Iago de Pazia had also risen, spluttering as he held his robe, now soaked with the still-hot contents of the teapot, away from his body. The gangling young slave bent over to retrieve cups from the floor. Eva turned and rapidly crept out towards the back, but not before she saw Basil’s eye close and open again in what was unmistakably a wink.
She unbarred the back door and slipped out, thanking her patron saint.
Casa de Pazia: August 23, 1513
“Señorita? Here is the paper and a quill. If you will write to your relatives now, I will make sure that they receive it.”
Casa Cerra had nothing but good associations for Eva. She took the pen and sat down to write Elias, in care of Nurse Veronica. She addressed him only as ‘brother’—Elias had warned her to name no names.
Hermano mio, Casa Cerra kindly offered to shelter me until you could come get me.
Your loving hermanita. Written early Tuesday morning, August 8.
And then, because Nurse could not read, Eva drew the little cat that was her special signature.
She gave it to the waiting Andres. “Take this to the farm of Tomás in Maracena. He will get it to my people.”
“It is as good as done.” Andres blew the ink dry and carefully folded the paper. “And now, let me escort you to our women’s dormitorio.”